If you're an undergraduate Penn student interested in research, you've probably heard about PURM, the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program. 

Founded in 2007, PURM is a promotional initiative by Penn's Center for Undergraduate Research & Fellowships to help first- and second-year undergraduate students get involved in research, which can otherwise be an intimidating and logistically-challenging endeavor for inexperienced students. By applying to PURM, students have the opportunity to connect with a Penn faculty member researching their area of interest, and to subsequently work for pay with this esteemed faculty member during the summer. 

In previous years, PURM projects have typically been conducted in person. But, as we begin another summer in a pandemic limbo, what does PURM look like in 2021? 

Well, there's no simple answer to this question. Though PURM is a centralized program, each research experience looks different since it is dependent on the individuals involved. Some projects are in person while others remain online. Both faculty and students are working with and around rules and individuals' needs. Senior Associate Director for Undergraduate Research Center Ann Vernon-Grey, emphasizes that “our faculty and our students are super resilient and willing to accommodate, communicate, and adjust to the necessary circumstances.” 

This year there was actually a rise in the number of Penn students interested in PURM. Because of the overwhelming number of student applications, PURM was able to increase the number of students it's funding because they were able to accept all faculty projects that had been proposed. 

“[To] the Provost and the Deputy Provost, PURM is very important and [has] been a priority for a long time. This year, because of all the things that were going on, they made an even greater commitment," explains Vernon-Grey. "We were actually able to fund all of the faculty members who applied. And that is unusual.”

Student excitement for PURM has seemingly also increased. Because of COVID-19 over this past year, many first- and second-year undergraduates have missed out on spending time in Philadelphia. Now, not only are PURM students excited about their research projects, but many are thrilled to be in the city and to be able to experience the joy of a summer here. 

Rising sophomore, Cathy Chen (C '24), is investigating malaria in a lab with Audrey Odom John, the Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Cathy's research is focused on examining a specific enzyme in the parasite that causes malaria with the goal of determining how to inhibit the enzyme and kill the parasite.


Photo courtesy of Cathy Chen

Cathy is incredibly excited for her work this summer, specifically to be working with Odom John. In fact, she transferred into the College because of a unit in her microbiology course last year on infectious diseases in which they watched a TED talk from Odom John. 

Cathy is also appreciative of PURM's commitment to funding its students. 

“As a low income student, it's because of this stipend that I'm able to have this experience. I'm really grateful," she says. "I really want to make the most of the summer. If you choose to not spend the time or effort [with your] research, then I truly don't believe that you've taken full advantage of the opportunity that has been afforded to us, because PURM is really amazing." 

Karan Sampath (E '24) is working remotely in Philadelphia on data modeling and data analytics for Blanca Himes from the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology. Karan is looking to see whether pollution disproportionately affects certain demographics of people and whether the effects are correlated to income. 

Photo courtesy of Karan Sampath

Choosing this summer position was not an easy decision for Karan because he is an international student from Mumbai, India, and a PURM position means he must stay in the U.S. This information was not clear to Karan during the PURM application process. Karan suggests that, to help “make [PURM] more accessible for international students in the future, they should maybe add a caveat” that states that international students must be in the U.S. even if their work is remote. 

Despite missing home, Karan has been enjoying the liveliness of Philadelphia this summer and especially loves cycling around at night.

Sylvia Mihailescu (C '24) is working in-person in Jay Gottfried's lab. Her role will entail looking at brain scans from autopsies to build a clear mapping of the olfactory system and to look for a connections between the olfactory system and Alzheimer’s disease. She was thrilled when she received the news of her acceptance.

Photo courtesy of Sylvia Mihailescu

"[Applying] to PURM, I didn't really have too many expectations because I had heard how competitive it was," Sylvia explains. She's grateful that PURM has given her the opportunity to explore such a niche field. Like many other PURM students, Sylvia hopes to continue her work throughout the year. And, also like many others, Sylvia has big plans for her summer in Philadelphia: she hopes to explore the food scene, check out Wonderspaces, and bike on the Schuylkill River Trail. 

Indeed, there are and have been bumps in coordinating PURM projects and experiences on the heels of such a tumultuous and complicated year. But after a lot of hard work and planning, whether it’s over a screen or safely in-person, undergraduate summer research at Penn is a go.